Laser Sharp Focus
By Diane McMahon
Photography by Christian Lee
When I met Ashley Hamlin, I was aware she won an award at a science fair. I knew she was good at math and science. Immediately, I was impressed with her calm and candid manner and pleased when her smile revealed dimples and a reserved humor. As a high school junior, she seemed atypical only in her lack of self-consciousness and the giggly giddiness common to teenage girls. She wore dark fingernail polish, cool rings and mentioned her boyfriend Andrew.
But after our interview and a quick perusal of her numerous Google entries, I discovered Ashley is a unique young woman moving towards an exceptional future. In 2014, she won the top award at the Sea Island Regional Science Fair, which allowed her to advance to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles. There she competed with 1,400 students from 70 countries (selected out of more than 7 million participants in regional fairs) in 17 categories. Ashley placed third in her category and won a cash grant and prize from the American Psychological Association (APA).
Her project’s goal was to determine the human eye’s ability to perceive light moving at tremendously high speed. It had the daunting title: “Light Speed: A Measure of Ocular Phototransduction Using Pulsed Light Emitting Diodes.” (For a detailed explanation, Google Ashley Hamlin, winner regional science fair.)
Ashley says her experience presenting to more than 30 judges at the regional fair was terrifying. “I was just praying I didn’t forget everything. Plus, I was the last presenter, so I heard everyone else, which just added pressure.” Obviously, she managed to do just fine.
Ashley says from the time she was little she loved solving puzzles. She is interested in the “unsolved mysteries of the world.” She says she has an analytical mind and is able to construct problems and answers by sorting through pieces of information and seeing how and where they fit. She also loves to write. When I asked if she used a different part of her brain to create fiction she surprised me by answering no. “In writing, you’re also trying to solve a problem or work out a hypothesis. I still use my analytical mind to construct and answer the problem.”
Ashley’s mother confirms that even as a baby Ashley was a whiz with puzzles. She confides that the day Ashley came home from the hospital, her grandmother observed her for a while and pronounced, “That is a very smart baby.”
Ashley started at the Sea Pines Montessori Academy when she was 3 years old and attended until fourth grade. She continued her education in the Hilton Head public school system.
After her sophomore year, Ashley enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program for which she will receive a diploma, along with her high school diploma, when she graduates. It has a broad and internationally recognized curriculum that requires students to participate in six core learning areas: language and literature; language acquisition; individuals and societies; science; math and the arts. Ashley is currently taking calculus, physics, English, history, French and biology. About 60 students out of 300 in her class are enrolled in the program.
She is in three service clubs and three honor clubs—French, Science and the National Honor Society. She is team captain of the Rocket Club, which will build an actual rocket. The last several summers she has been accepted into the DukeTIP (Talent Identification Program) summer program, a competitive program geared to academically gifted and talented students to help them reach their highest potential.
We talked about the national initiative to get more girls interested in math and science. She says she’s never felt pressured to go in any direction by her parents. “They always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. From the time I was 2 years old ‘til I was 7, I wanted to be an astronaut. Then people told me you have to do a lot of math and it was really hard. I didn’t know that what I was doing at Montessori school was math. So I gave up on being an astronaut and decided to be a chef on a train…and I can’t cook.” She credits two teachers with especially encouraging her: Paula Ilami from Sea Pines Montessori and Dora Fletcher “who makes her students love math” (and who also happens to be her boyfriend’s mother).
She says, “I’ve never felt a discrepancy between boys and girls in my math and science classes. Actually, there are more boys in my physics class but overall it feels balanced. At my school it’s really comforting.” She acknowledges, “Some people pretend they’re not as smart as they are, but I’m too stubborn to do that. Real friends don’t pretend to be something they’re not.”
What about time for fun? She smiles (dimples again). “I have lots of free time. I hang out with my friends. I play tennis.” Maybe she’s one of those lucky people who finds the work she does fun. Near the end of our conversation, she says, “I don’t really want to grow up. I feel balanced between a child and adult. But when you’re grown up your decisions actually matter. They affect other people.” I see remnants of the child in her expression. But there’s no doubt this young woman is becoming an amazing adult.